by Frank Aceto
Associate Sports Editor
Cuyahoga Falls senior swimmer Andrew Appleby looked vulnerable.
He had just finished sixth in his first race and his nerves were getting the best of him.
"At that point, it was all or nothing," Appleby said.
Now that it's over, Appleby feels like he's on top of the world.
He's a state champion for the first time.
The standout 17-year-old won the 100-yard backstroke title at the Division I state meet, which concluded Feb. 23 at C.T. Branin Natatorium in Canton.
Appleby finished with a lifetime-best and school-record time of 49 seconds.
"When I hit the wall, I heard people freaking out," he said. "I knew something exciting happened. When I saw the time and the place on the board ... to be honest, I don't really remember too much. It was a dream come true."
Appleby's eyes focused directly on his head coach, Mike McDonald, after the race.
"I pointed at my coach," Appleby said. "I told him, 'This is for you.' Coach McDonald means so much to me.
"I've been swimming for coach McDonald since I was 12 and coach [ Lady Black Tigers head swimming and diving coach and Cuyahoga Falls Tigersharks coach] Peter [Nauman] since I was 8. They've invested so much in my swimming and my personal life. I would not be in the position I'm in today if it weren't for them."
McDonald has struggled to keep his emotions in check since the state meet. He knows he coached a once-in-a-generation swimmer and person.
"He's the whole package," McDonald said. "It's hard to see him move on, but I'm excited for him."
Appleby, who will continue swimming at The Ohio State University in Columbus, had to briefly get over some nerve issues prior to the 100-yard backstroke.
He competed in the 100-yard freestyle race a little earlier in the day and finished a disappointing sixth with a time of 46. 26 seconds.
"I panicked," Appleby said. "Halfway through the race, I felt I needed to change my game plan and it completely backfired on me."
Appleby realized he committed a cardinal sin. Throughout his career, McDonald has tried to get Appleby to appreciate a simple four-word statement: "Don't think, just swim."
Unfortunately, Appleby got caught up in the moment.
"[Senior teammate] Ryan Hillyer and I have a tendency to overthink our races," he said. "Coach McDonald doesn't want us to think. So when he asks us what we thought of our races, we would say, 'Nothing.'"
McDonald knows Appleby is extremely passionate about what he does. For the most part, it's a welcome sight. Sometimes, though, Appleby can drive his coach crazy.
"He analyzes everything he does," McDonald said. "I wondered if I put too much pressure on him after the 100 free. What makes me most proud is that he overcame the adversity and that's what makes him a champion."
Appleby took third in the 100 freestyle and fifth in the 100 backstroke at the 2012 state meet. He also placed eighth in the 100 freestyle at the 2011 state competition.
Appleby was Falls' lone representative in Canton the previous two years. He had some company this time.
Hillyer, senior Landon Alderman and sophomore Will Turnbull joined Appleby on the 200-yard medley relay team that placed 23rd.
"Coach Peter always says, 'It's great to get to the mountaintop, but it's a 1,000 times more enjoyable when people are with you,'" Appleby said. "I put everything I had in that relay at the district meet."
The relay team was seeded 23rd going into the race.
"They did the best they could do," McDonald said. "Landon is a brand new swimmer. I can only imagine what I could have done with him if he was a two-, three- or four-year swimmer.
"Ryan swims lights out in every race. He leaves everything in the water. Will will be hungrier now that he has the experience."
As for Appleby, he hopes to do even better in college. Appleby also considered Virginia Tech before deciding to join the Buckeyes.
"I'm truly excited to go to Ohio State and swim there," Appleby said. "Virginia Tech is an amazing facility and its program is on the rise, but I swam some of [Ohio State head men's swimming coach] Bill Wadley's camps and I always wanted to go to Ohio State."
Don't expect Appleby to rest on his laurels.
He is the founder of Make A Splash, which teaches inner-city kids how to swim. The swimming lessons take place at the Patterson Park Community Center in Akron.
"It was spearheaded by [U.S. Olympic gold medalist] Cullen Jones," Appleby said. "The whole effort is based on reducing the high minority youth drowning rate.
"Mr. John Hafford has been a huge help with setting us up with the kids. We've had 175 inner-city Akron kids take swimming lessons and have raised more than $20,000 for the cause."
One of the volunteer instructors is Hudson sophomore and former Tigersharks' teammate Ross Palazzo, who won both the 200-yard individual medley and 100-yard breaststroke titles in Canton.
"Ross is still one of my best friends," Appleby said. "Ross, Ryan Hillyer and I were like a gang when we were younger. We were inseparable."
Pardon McDonald if he seems a little lost now that the state meet is over. An amazing season came to an end and some of his closest friends will no longer be a part of the team.
"Andrew keeps telling me it's not over," McDonald said. "I say, 'Yeah it is, buddy.' If I'm having a bad day, I would see those guys and it would put a smile on my face. It was a wonderful season and a storybook ending to Andrew's career."